Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fast Food Unions, Part Two


In most cases, a union is now formed through an election that is conducted through the National Labor Relations Board.

To get the process going, the law requires 30% of the workers at the bargaining unit sign cards authorizing the union to represent them. (The "bargaining unit" for the Jimmy Johns Union consisted of nine or ten locations in Minneapolis, and about 200 workers.) A petition can take the place of cards. It is also highly advisable to exceed the 30% authorization as much as possible, because not everyone who authorizes will necessarily vote that way in the election. The Jimmy Johns workers collected 60%, more than enough to initiate an NLRB election.

Once the NLRB is petitioned for an election, the Board notifies the employer. The employer can, at that point, recognize the union. It is more common for the employer to request a hearing at which the union shows it has the basis for an election. This gives the employer time to start planning a campaign against unionization, and may provide an opportunity to challenge the grounds for an election. Otherwise, the Board sets a date for the union election. And this is where things got very interesting for the Jimmy Johns workers.

There are legal things an employer can do to discourage people from voting for the union. Many will hire very expensive consultants who specialize in anti-union campaigns. Jimmy Johns reportedly paid out $80 grand for the services of the Labor Relations Institute, a for-profit company that spreads anti-union propaganda and helps employers block unions.

Among other things, it is legal to bury your employees in anti-union propaganda and there is no legal requirement that any of the information be truthful. An employer can intimate that bad things will happen if they vote for the union, although direct threats are not allowed.

Supervisors can call you in for private meetings to discuss the union situation and argue against it. (Presumably the time spent doing this, and not working, is your responsibility.) They can also call everyone in for meetings and require attendance. At Jimmy Johns, they reportedly did this after sending home select employees (i.e. persuasive pro-union employees) for dress code infractions that had never existed before.

That's all legal, and there are illegal things that employers frequently add to this arsenal. Transferring workers, suspending them, bribing them, threatening them. Companies have been busted for telling their workers that if they unionize, the company will close the plant and open a new plant somewhere else. The penalties for doing these things come well after the election has been swayed.

The Jimmy Johns ownership is charged with 22 violations of the National Labor Relations Act for the actions it took to defeat the union. Allegations include bribes, pressuring workers to wear anti-union pins, firings of pro-union employers, and threats of mass firings.

The election took place on October 22 and was a near-tie: 85 for, 87 against, and two contested ballots. A tie in such an election goes to the employer. The union lost the election. They may try again, if they wish, after one year passes.

On the other hand, it generated some press attention for the state of workers in the fast food industry. For example, here. The involvement of the historic IWW also generated interest in the effort, as did the endorsement of the Jimmy Johns Union by the AFL-CIO.

Fast food is a tough industry, and Jimmy Johns is tougher than most. Most of us don't think about this when we stop off at Blake's or Burger King or Pizza Hut, and someone in uniform asks us if we would like to include fries or onion rings in our order. Where I live, here in Deming, a great many locals work in fast food restaurants close to the interstate that passes through. Sonic, McDonald's, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Denny's, Ranchers Grill, from west to east, easy on and easy off.

This finishes part two, which is just about the process Jimmy Johns followed. Part three will conclude this brief series with some commentary on work and human relations.

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NOTE: This blog is indebted to the work of Michael D. Yates, and highly recommends the latest edition of his book, Why Unions Matter, for further reading.


[Photo: Labor day picket by the Jimmy Johns Union in Minneapolis]

1 comment:

Nathan said...

We had a Border's bookstore close a few years back in Minneapolis, in large part due to the company's response to unionization efforts. And there was also an effort at a Whole Foods market in St. Paul that failed, maybe 5 years ago. The Twin Cities has a really rich history with union/anti-union activity, going back to at least the early 1930's. Some historians point to the the 1934 strikes here, which were tense and got violent, as influential on FDR's New Deal legislation.